At first mention of the “Frankenstorm”—or “Frankenstorm’s Monster,” as countless nerds have gleefully interjected—I scoffed, and remembered drunkenly snoring through Hurricane Irene last year after a bottle of wine and half a day spent scouring Midtown Manhattan for a flashlight.
Hangover Irene notwithstanding, with Hurricane Sandy on the way—loudly proclaimed to be even worse than Irene—I headed home to Connecticut to wait it out, whatever it might prove to be. How many times a year do these weather guys say anything relevant? I demanded cynically. Pshhh.
Now, in the wake of Frankenstorm’s Monster, I can’t get back. Eating my words and every h of my Pshhh, it seems I’m trapped outside the city.
The MTA reports that a “pleasure boat” found its way onto the tracks of the Metro North Commuter Rail outside Ossining, NY, and power is down between New Haven and Grand Central. Car and subway tunnels in lower Manhattan are filled to the ceiling with salt water, the estuary of Manhattan’s twin rivers creeping ever northward, station by station. Even if I could get there, it seems unlikely I’d find an easy way to Brooklyn.
And so I wait. I have water, electricity, and far more food than I’ve ever had in Brooklyn. The disruption has afforded me what amounts to an extra-long weekend. The people I know in the city are fine, if a bit uncomfortable. Facebook and Twitter updates track droves of self-described “trendy” downtowners beating a somber pilgrimage uptown, MacBooks and iPhones and iPads (oh Lord) brandished plug-first at midtown’s Starbucks, Paneras, and hotel lobbies in a soggy, hipster exodus.
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There is a German saying that goes, Eigener Herd ist Goldes wert—A stove of one’s own is worth gold. With Teutonic self-reliance, I take this sentiment to heart even in the inland comfort of sub-suburban Connecticut.
On a morning-of grocery run in anticipation of Sandy’s arrival, our local grocers hurriedly boxed up cold produce, preparing to stash it in a refrigerated truck in case of a power outage, and meanwhile terrifying my mother with their frenzy. With Teutonic, near-Emersonian self-reliance, I took solace in the knowledge that we had at our own house a cast-iron wood stove with two top burners—enough to boil water (for coffee) and cook eggs, or bacon, or grilled cheese sandwiches depending on the mood—and an outshed filled with a cord and a half of cut, dry firewood. What, me worry?
Indeed, the security of this knowledge resonated in some pioneer, homesteading hollow of my brain, some thin trace of that caveman stretch of human history that seems too far back to really have any significant impact. (Start ruminating on caveman life and one quickly ends up in an eddy of Paleo Diets and Whole Foods anthropology.) The mere prospect of roughing it, averse though I am to The Outdoors, sparks some ancestral woodsman gene within me that instinctually stacks firewood three-by-three, that understands a “cord” as a measurement of quantity, that knows the correct spelling of ‘flue’ and how to open one. Electricity? Ho ho ho! I imagine chuckling, Bunyanesque and strapping in flannel and suspenders, bearded out to here, cheerily felling trees in a driving rain.
Self-reliance is a great comfort, of course, when one can manage it. Unabhängigkeit the Germans call it—‘un-hanging-from-ness,’ which is to say ‘independence.’ It’s the same instinct, I imagine, that makes “Throw everything in the car, we’re leaving” feel safer than “Get on this bus, we’re leaving.” Or that, despite the numbers, allows drivers to feel confident and safe behind the wheel of a car, while plane passengers feel at the mercy of fixed-winged death.
Though perhaps the comparison is disingenuous. Firewood and a wood-burning stove truly is a form of self-reliance, as is, to a certain extent, A Car of One’s Own. (When everyone skips town at once across only a handful of bridges, the autonomy and power of the exit are more or less illusory.) As a son of suburbia living in Brooklyn, I miss this sort of self-reliance perhaps most acutely. To say “I’m leaving now” is all fine and good, but my actual departure is subject to a discouraging number of variables—train schedules, line closures, rain and trash and rats on the track.
At present the greatest variable is Sandy herself, or what’s left of her. New Yorkers without the Unabhängigkeit to make hay or make tracks are stranded, some more direly than others. Eigener Herd is hard to come by in the city, at least in a literal sense—a working fireplace is rare enough, much less wood to go in it. And good luck cooking over-easys on that.
As for Paul Bunyan, I could have sworn I saw him in Williamsburg.